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Nicole Parham wanted to make sure all of her kindergarten students could see the book she was about to read.
“Give me a thumbs up if this looks okay,” Parham said, and was met with 12 tiny thumbs.
It could have been a scene from any kindergarten classroom. But instead of sitting in a circle on a carpet all together, Parham was sitting alone in her upstairs guest room, showing the book to a camera so a computer screen full of children could read along virtually.
“You feel like a first year teacher all over again,” Parham, who is in her 17th year of teaching at Irving School in Highland Park, said from her makeshift remote classroom. The once-beige walls have been painted teal and adorned with colorful calendars and weather charts to make the space feel a bit more like school and less like the virus-free confines of a spare bedroom.
Teachers in Highland Park, a small Middlesex County district of about 1,600 students, have been teaching remotely since March, when Gov. Phil Murphy first closed schools as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
While some districts are allowing teachers to be in their empty classrooms to teach students who are learning virtually, Highland Park is one of many that opted to have teachers work from home to start the school year.
In contrast to the rushed switch in the spring, when teachers were adapting to online learning while continuing the ongoing school year, there was a bit more prep time going into the fall.
Special education elementary teacher Amanda Yonks said she began setting up her home classroom in mid-August amidst uncertainty about how the new school year would take place. Both she and Parham recently welcomed an NJ Advance Media photographer into their new at-home classrooms for a behind-the-screen look.
“Every time I went to go set up, I was like, ‘What happens if we go back?’ It was an uncertainty, doing it and then regretting it. So after we found out that (remote learning) was actually happening, I think it took me about two weeks,” Yonks said.
Her first challenge was finding a space to work within her home. She initially set up a work station in her bedroom, but quickly realized that wasn’t a great long term plan.
“I wasn’t sleeping at night thinking about work,” Yonks said. Other family members who were working from home made finding her own space even more difficult, she said.
For the start of the new school year, Yonks “took over” the shared living room, she said, filling it with a desk and wall hangings. Like Parham, she tried to keep the room bright and cheerful, taking care to make sure any wall decorations were big enough to be seen on-camera.
“It was a lot harder” setting up at home than in a classroom, Yonks said. Not only does she have less wall space to hang things, not having the children physically in their learning environment can make engaging them challenging.
“You have to (make the space) virtually inviting,” she said.
In addition to the same wall hangings that would normally be in her room, Parham’s home classroom is tech-heavy.
Parham has a main laptop set up on her desk where she can share screens of YouTube videos or online activities. The kid’s faces on Zoom are on a second, external monitor. When she needs to be in front of the wall instead of at the desk she uses an old iPad as a camera, and an old iPhone works as a document camera to make reading stories easier.
All of these changes come with a price tag. Both say they had to buy tech accessories, like a mouse, iPad stand and headphones, and get creative with things they already owned. Yonks repurposed a garment rack into a hanging stand for her calendar and a folding table into a desk, while a chunk of Parham’s tech were old gadgets the family already owned.
“I have the tech to make this effective— not many have that so the inequity is unfortunately an issue,” Parham said.
Teaching young children has always demanded flexibility during the day, but Yonks and Parham said the reliance on technology makes adaptability more important than ever — especially when the kids’ internet is lagging at home.
“So you have to think about your plan for the day but then base it on what the child’s situation at home is,” Yonks said. Some days the websites she needs have loaded, and on another day two of her students kept getting kicked off the Zoom meeting.
Neither teacher got ready for the school year alone. In Parham’s home, her children and husband helped with painting and furniture assembly, and her sister loaned her computer supplies. Yonks used donations from Teachers Choose to help get a set of supplies to each of her special education students.
“It takes a village to make this work,” Parham said.
But even with all this work, it’s unclear how much longer teachers will stay at home. Although Highland Park has announced an Oct. 5 return to the classroom date Parham said some teachers might have to remain remote if enough students choose to stay home. A hybrid schedule with some in-person and some remote days might also necessitate a home classroom.
And at any moment, an outbreak in the school could force everyone back into their bedrooms.
“It’s just an unknown factor— what’s going to be — so kind of just focusing on this is my situation right now and that’s why I have decided to go all out (setting up) the classroom at home,” Yonks said.
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Katie Kausch may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.